DETROIT – A season ago, the Green Bay Packers' depth was tested throughout their run to the title, as injury after injury needed to be overcome.
That storyline carried over to the team's biggest win thus far in 2011 over the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Among the numerous players who went down with injuries on Thursday at Ford Field, right guard Josh Sitton and inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk were the most significant, and their respective substitutes Evan Dietrich-Smith, D.J. Smith and Robert Francois all had a significant impact on the 27-15 victory that improved the Packers to 11-0.
"That's what this team is built on," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Guys go down, guys step in and do an excellent job, and it was no different today."
Dietrich-Smith was involved in perhaps the biggest contribution to the win somewhat unintentionally.
When Sitton left in the first half with a knee injury, Dietrich-Smith had to line up across from Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and things got interesting on the opening drive of the second half.
With the Packers in the red zone, Dietrich-Smith and Suh got tangled up and went down together after the whistle. Suh then began pushing Dietrich-Smith's helmet down into the turf, repeatedly, and then got up and stomped on his bicep.
That drew a personal foul and an ejection for the Lions' top defensive player, and the Packers proceeded to score a touchdown to go up 14-0 and cruise to victory.
"We were just two football players out there playing hard," Dietrich-Smith said, being careful with his words. "Sometimes you get locked up and things happen.
"I don't really know what drove him to do what he did, but stuff happens."
When informed by reporters that Suh said he was being held down and couldn't get up without pushing on Dietrich-Smith's helmet, and that Suh said he was just getting up and didn't intentionally kick him – a preposterous explanation based on the video evidence – Dietrich-Smith didn't take the bait, the same way he didn't during the game itself.
"If he takes a shot, he takes a shot," he said. "I'm not out there trying to incite extra things or do any extra stuff."
Dietrich-Smith's teammates applauded his performance overall, and his composure in the heat of what several called a dirty play.
"It's tough," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "That's your buddy getting kicked, or whatever. I don't know what happened. You just have to be smart about it. There's no need to be participating in that stuff."
Suh's subsequent absence on defense certainly hurt the Lions, as did injuries to a couple of their defensive backs. But the Packers had injuries on that side of the ball, too, and compensated much more effectively.
Immediately upon entering for Bishop, who left with a calf injury, D.J. Smith drilled Lions running back Kevin Smith for no gain on the final play of the first quarter.
That got Smith going, and he went on to get credited with five tackles (four solo), including a nice open-field takedown of tight end Tony Scheffler after a short pass reception.
"I think that helped out a little bit, to get the jitters out and get the nerves out and get the blood flowing," Smith said of his first, early tackle. "It felt real good."
Shortly thereafter, Smith was playing alongside another backup as Francois stepped in for Hawk, who also had a calf injury.
Francois didn't have as many tackles, with only three, but his interception midway through the third quarter was the defensive play of the game.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford was trying to throw down the middle seam to tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was being covered by outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Francois dropped into a middle zone, and he's not sure whether Stafford saw him or not, but he reached up and snagged the pass for his first career interception.
"He was probably just trying to fit it over me," Francois said. "I just jumped."
The turnover ended a Detroit drive in scoring range and gave the Packers the ball at their own 35. On the next snap, Aaron Rodgers went deep to James Jones for a 65-yard touchdown and the Packers were up 21-0.
The impact of Green Bay's defensive reserves stood out even more when compared to those for Detroit. Backup cornerback Brandon McDonald was called for a key pass interference penalty against Greg Jennings in the end zone to help set up the Packers' first score, but that was just the start of the Lions' problems in the secondary when cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas left the game.
Another backup corner, Aaron Berry, whiffed on a sideline tackle of Jennings that he took for a 19-yard gain, and he was burned on a deep sideline pass for 31 yards. Backup safety Chris Harris, released by the Bears earlier this season, also bit hard on a play-action fake to Ryan Grant that got Jones so wide open on the long touchdown.
The Packers had no such glaring issues depth-wise.
"From the instant D.J. stepped in, he was making tackles, and Rob obviously showed what he can do in the pass game with the interception," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "These guys can play. Obviously on a defending super bowl champion team, their reps will be limited, but they did a good job preparing because when their number was called, they answered."
Just like so many players did a season ago.
"That's just been the story of this team it seems, dating back to last year, the way guys have continued to step in and play when other guys have gone down," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said.
"We feel we're not going to make any excuses if somebody does go down. We know what it takes to win if somebody does go down, and we're just going to keep fighting."
Additional coverage - Nov. 24